Terra Incognita: Israel’s burden of inequalities

The country shouldn’t send people to the army just for the sake of "schadenfreude."

Haredi man, IDF ceremony Tal Law Keshev IDF390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi man, IDF ceremony Tal Law Keshev IDF390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘The members of the younger generation refuse to be your suckers anymore. I’m not sure you are aware of this, but polls indicate that Israel’s secular youth regard the ultra- Orthodox as the most hated and threatening community in the country... pray with us for the success of your integration.”
These aren’t the words of Hungarian nationalists, demanding the Jews “integrate” because their continued isolation makes them “hated.” This was published in the leading Hebrew daily by a Tel Aviv University professor, representing the secular intelligentsia in Israel and its populist extremism.
The frequent demand that the haredim, often called “parasites” in the press, on TV and radio, should “share the burden” of IDF service must be examined.
TO UNDERSTAND how the army’s burden is not equally distributed we must start with the facts. At the Knesset Tuesday Yair Lapid claimed: “10 percent of the population cannot threaten the other 90% with civil war.” What he should have said was that 10% should not threaten the other 50% with civil war; of enlistment-age Israelis, i.e men and women aged 18, only half serve in the IDF. Of Jewish men, 75% serve. In a report from the IDF’s manpower division published in Yediot Aharonot, by 2020 some 40% of Israeli Jews will not be serving in the IDF.
According to most published data sources, of the Jewish men who do not serve, only half do not serve because they receive Torah study exemptions. The other half are exempted due to medical reasons, criminal backgrounds or because they are abroad, or because they simply dodge the draft. In short, there are an equal number of secular and haredi men who do not serve in the army.
Among Jewish women, one third receive exemptions for being “religious.” In 2009 the Knesset attempted to combat this phenomenon; “under the new bill, draft-age girls seeking religious exemptions would also be required to declare that they were enrolled in a religious educational institution for at least two out of the three years preceding their exemption request.” However, the law was not passed. In 2011, IDF manpower directorate chief Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai noted that if the current trend continues, “in three years the number [of women not serving] is set to reach 44.1%.”
ACCORDING TO the sources, 6% of those drafted receive medical exemptions. Medical exemptions can be for all manner of problems, such as severe asthma, but also for mental health reasons. A report by Yossi Yehoshua in Yediot noted that an army program “aims to fight the number of exemptions being issued to teenagers on mental health grounds under the Profile 21 clause.” A 25% drop in the number of people receiving these exemptions was achieved.
Yehoshua wrote, “the IDF has boosted inspection on exemptions issued by non-military psychiatrists.
Teens were known to show up at recruiting centers with psychiatric opinions bought for thousands of shekels from leading doctors.”
An article by Joshua Mitnik at The Christian Science Monitor adds further evidence: “One trend that disturbs many Israelis is an increase in middle- and upper-class teens – considered the potential leaders and brains of the army – who seek health-related discharges to avoid military service.”
It’s important to stress that while the army sends those claiming medical conditions to its own specialists, those with documentation from non-military doctors have a better chance of being discharged, because those without such documentation are less likely to be considered for discharge.
According to the report the army reduced these exemptions by 25 percent. Evidently that doesn’t mean a large number of people with dangerous mental problems are now in the army. It represents the ferreting out of people who faked psychiatric problems in collaboration with medical professionals.
The army however did not prosecute the youths or the doctors, according to the report.
There are people whose medical exemptions are legitimate, but the existence of fake doctor’s notes is wasting the valuable time of the army’s medical staff.
Many Israeli celebrities received medical exemptions from army service. Daphni Leef, the social justice protest leader, who comes from one of Israel’s wealthiest communities, received an exemption because she’s epileptic. Aviv Geffen, the famous singer, has claimed he received a medical exemption.
Jason Danino-Holt, a television presenter and one-time host of MTV Europe, received a medical exemption.
What is interesting is that the health issues that prevented these people from serving evidently didn’t prevent them from carrying on successful careers as television personalities, performers or activists. Some might consider that odd, since the army has positions, such as the military band, that are not dissimilar from the professional career of these celebrities. It appears that increasingly for some, medical exemptions from army service are becoming the secular man’s yeshiva.
MODI’IN AND Jewish communities in the West Bank have the highest enlistment rates, while Tel Aviv has one of the lowest, and the same breakdown goes for combat units. Within the army therefore there are deep geographical differences in “equality.”
While some of this is self-selective – national-religious people from the West Bank want to serve in combat units – some of it is not. One study found that people from the “periphery” or poor development towns like Kiryat Gat were more likely to end up in the Border Guard units. Yitzhak Laor, a leftist writer, notes that “new immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia are the ones sent there. The soldiers who grew up more comfortably by and large end up serving in cushier positions like Intelligence Corps Unit 8200 or at Army Radio.”
The army doesn’t release data on the birthplaces or socio-economic status of soldiers in Army Radio or Intelligence, but again, there is overwhelming evidence that these positions are filled with those from wealthier secular communities.
These differences are exacerbated by the role an Israeli’s army service plays in his or her later life; three years in the Border Police doesn’t look as good on the resume or provide the same connections as unit 8200 or Army Radio. It’s no coincidence that Yair Lapid and Ehud Olmert were both army journalists, not Border Police.
When one looks at the hi-tech pioneers, one again finds people from “good units.” When one looks at members of the judiciary, they find people who served in the IDF Military Advocate General corps (of current sitting Supreme Court Justices, Hanan Melcer and Uri Shoham were both in the MAG while Yizthak Amit was in unit 8200). The ethnic and socio-economic breakdowns in these units are hardly representative of Israeli society; they are made up almost exclusively of those from the Ashkenazi secular middle and upper classes. Try to find a pilot in the Israel Air Force from a development town. How do people secure placement at Army Radio and why is it so unrepresentative of Israeli society? And inequality exists in other parts of the IDF.
Fifty-three percent of male Ethiopian Jews do time in military prisons during their service, compared to only 23% of non-Ethiopians; 91% of Ethiopian men serve in the army, versus only 74% of non- Ethiopians.
So even though they are disproportionately serving, the army disproportionately sentences them to prison, indicative of a discriminatory pattern. If the army can’t treat black Jews well, how well would it treat black-hat Jews who it has trained itself to hate for so long? THE RHETORIC about “equalizing the burden” breeds populist demonization of haredim. Some of the same people who celebrate conscientious objectors who refuse to serve due to “moral” qualms with the occupation, bash the haredim for lack of service.
The same people in Ramat Aviv and Kiryat Yovel that won’t sell apartments to “dirty haredi cockroaches” and proudly tear down eruvim are the same ones who hypocritically demand “equality” – of duty, not privilege.
It seems patently ridiculous to demand equality of haredi service before breaking down the discriminatory barriers in Israel that trap people in cycles of poverty.
If a haredi person joins the army, he still won’t have an equal place in secular society. If he applies for a position at one of our top universities he will come up against attitudes such as those mentioned above, and will be judged solely based on the style of his clothing and his beard. Equality is demanded of the haredi man in army service, but equality is denied him in many other walks of life in Israel.
There is an overriding notion that army service in Israel is a unifying social melting pot of egalitarianism; the Druse and the Beduin serve beside the Russian and the sabra, or native Israeli. But many acknowledge that the army isn’t so utopian. As Tal Mandelbaum at The Daily Beast writes: “The fundamental idea of the IDF as a melting pot churning out tightly-knit citizens is simply no longer true.” Ironically, it is precisely the same old elites who are abandoning the army that are finding scapegoats to fill the ranks.
Some claim army service for the haredi community will facilitate entry to the workforce. However, those secular people who don’t serve don’t face any barriers at “integration” into the workforce – in fact, the long list of famous and wealthy people who received exemptions merely shows that army service doesn’t necessarily help people professionally.
Sending 10,000 haredim a year to sit in the rain and do guard duty for three years won’t make them economically successful, and the country shouldn’t send people to the army just for the sake of schadenfreude, especially when some of those pointing fingers also do not “shoulder the burden.”